NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Women who have their first baby at an older age aren't at greater risk of postpartum depression, according to a new report that contradicts earlier concerns.
In a study of more than 500 first-time mothers, Australian researchers found that moms age 37 or older were no more likely to get postpartum depression than their younger counterparts -- whether they conceived naturally or had infertility treatment.
Overall, eight percent of the women had major depression symptoms four months after giving birth. That's at the lower end of what's seen among new mothers in general, the researchers say.
And they found no evidence that age itself affected a woman's risk of developing postpartum depression.
The idea that older first-time mothers might face a higher depression risk has been largely based on speculation and "popular culture anecdote," according to study leader Catherine A. McMahon, an associate professor of psychology at Macquarie University in Australia.
"Older mothers are frequently discussed in the media," McMahon noted in an email. "There are a lot of myths, and limited empirical data."
There's been some speculation, for instance, that older mothers might have a tougher time adjusting to motherhood -- after, presumably, being in the workforce for a long time. Or they might be more "set in their ways" than younger women, and have more difficulty dealing with the lifestyle changes that a baby brings.
But, McMahon said, "there is no research evidence to support these speculations."
On the other hand, it is known that older mothers have a higher risk of pregnancy complications, like high blood pressure and diabetes. And pregnancy complications, in turn, have been linked to postpartum depression risk.
For their study, reported in the journal Fertility and Sterility, McMahon's team followed 266 women who had conceived naturally and 275 who'd undergone fertility treatment. All of the women answered questionnaires during their third trimester, and had a diagnostic interview for depression when their babies were four months old.
Overall, 180 women were age 37 or older when they gave birth. And they were no more likely to develop postpartum depression than younger women were, the study found.
"The findings suggest that older first-time mothers are not at greater risk of postpartum depression, at least in the first four months after birth," McMahon said.
That, she added, highlights the importance of not "labeling" older moms as high-risk for depression -- something that, itself, could stress out a new mother.
Still, McMahon said that there are questions for future studies. One is whether going through menopause while caring for a young child presents challenges.
"There is considerable evidence that vulnerability to depression is greatest in mid-life for women," McMahon noted.
She said it would also be interesting to see how older mothers fare when they go back to work, since they may be more "emotionally committed" to their careers compared with younger mothers.
McMahon also pointed out that this study looked only at depression among women who successfully had a baby. She said there's a need for studies that look at the psychological well-being of women who put off having a baby, and then are unable to conceive.
SOURCE: bit.ly/vfffcx Fertility and Sterility, online September 30, 2011.